Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
Page added on February 15, 2013
This is the third part of a series [here and here], discussing how the same “skate past the facts and hope no one notices” strategy typically employed by most Peak Oil deniers is not-so-surprisingly used by those cheerleading for shale gas development. What triggered this is a March 2012 article written by a Chevron Corporation executive, entitled “The Truth About Natural Gas From Shale.” [Quotes are from that piece unless noted otherwise.]
His stated purpose was quite clear:
Understandably, this natural gas boom has raised some questions and concerns about how this resource is developed, including questions about the process of hydraulic fracturing and the affects, if any, on the water table. While there is much debate and rhetoric surrounding this resource, often times a simple explanation of the process is left out of the discussion. In an effort to help raise awareness of how natural gas from shale is extracted, here is a brief explanation.
Those of us concerned about our energy future believe it’s vital to provide the public with information. It’s not enough to offer vapid assurances that all is well with energy supply and production. Yes, there’s certainly been some good news in the last year or so, and we readily acknowledge that. But that’s only one part of the story. Without context, a great disservice is being extended to the public.
We certainly respect that the vast majority of citizens cannot make or do not have the time or interest or inclination to understand what’s at stake. There is an ongoing, determined effort by too many to at best muddle the issues enough to draw little or no attention from the public to the challenges we face. “Public interest” does not appear to factor into their motivations. Too few are benefiting at the expense of too many. Sound familiar? (It’s not a coincidence.)
Being prepared, understanding the issues, knowing both the positive and the negative aspects of energy supply and production affords citizens their best opportunity to either contribute meaningfully as we address and adapt to the looming problems, or to engage their leaders in more substantive dialogue in order to direct more specific actions. Not knowing there are any problems makes it a wee bit difficult to accomplish any of this. The consequences will thus only be worse. Not a good option.
If nothing else, citizens should easily appreciate that there are two sides to most stories. Too many are telling too many others only one side of the story—and facts tend not to play much of a role.
So let’s continue….
A seemingly ho-hum series of initial steps taken is our introduction to “the process:”
Once an area prospective for hydrocarbons has been determined, permission to drill is obtained from the landowner, a lease is signed, permits are secured, and environmental impact studies are conducted. Then seismic data is gathered to determine the best location to place the well in the shale that lies deep underground.
Once determined, a well site is constructed. From the well site, we are able to drill multiple wells from a single site to minimize land use. A drilling rig is then used to drill thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. In the Marcellus Basin, wells are typically around 8,000 feet deep – nearly 7,000 feet below the water table. The rig then drills horizontally, roughly 2,000 to 6,000 feet outward into the layer of shale rock. Many companies use several layers of steel casing and cement to form a continuous barrier between the well and the surrounding formations.
Sounds simple enough. No fuss, no bother, no contentious discussions … just a kind-hearted corporation easing into mostly rural communities and going about its business in such a way that it seems no one even notices they’re there! And so thoughtful, too, “drill[ing] multiple wells from a single site to minimize land use.”
Here’s a slightly more detailed description from the Energy Information Agency:
Hydraulic fracturing (commonly called ‘fracking’ or ‘fracing’) is a technique in which water, chemicals, and sand are pumped into the well to unlock the hydrocarbons trapped in shale formations by opening cracks (fractures) in the rock and allowing natural gas to flow from the shale into the well. When used in conjunction with horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing enables gas producers to extract shale gas economically. Without these techniques, natural gas does not flow to the well rapidly, and commercial quantities cannot be produced from shale. 
Duly noted, and at first glance, certainly understandable from a business standpoint. But let’s pause for a moment for another view of “the process.” Two months before “The Truth….” was published, Roberta Brandes Gratz offered a different perspective on this very same effort:
Hydrofracking involves injecting clean water, sand and an undisclosed combination of chemicals into the shale to free the gas from vast lateral reserves that are then brought to the surface. Each well site — known as as a pad — contains multiple wells on three to four acres of compacted gravel. The sites are spaced maybe 40 acres apart and connected by pipelines crisscrossing the land.
Ms. Gratz also managed to find space in her article to add these observations:
In the case of gas, the grid connection is a more complex piping system, indeed one so vast that it is difficult at this point to fully comprehend how many pipelines and multiple compressors will be required as wells proliferate, or how many farms, wetlands, woodlands and mountain tops they will cross. Gas makes windmills look benign in the impact on the land.
‘To connect to the larger, interstate pipelines’ companies are moving forward ‘on what is expected to be thousands of miles of smaller pipelines,’ Marc Levy of the Associated Press wrote in August. And that doesn’t include’ a possible network of water pipelines called for to avoid the current endless truck trips required to deliver water. Pipelines require wide cleared swaths through forests, mountain tops, farm fields and wetlands.
By carefully spacing her words, Ms. Gratz also found room in her article to offer these facts:
Gas needs to be compressed at multiple points along a route to flow through a pipeline. Compressor stations are required at close intervals. Compressors clean the gas of impurities before it is piped into peoples’ homes down the line. The noise from these compressors can be deafening.
In a prior article, Ms. Gratz offered this:
A recent visit to Bradford and Susquehanna Counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, currently a prime drilling target, revealed very troubling impacts that have received little attention so far. On scenic farm roads that never before bordered anything but farms — not even a gas station — industrial sites are sprouting left and right, representing the different segments of the gas production process — compressors, storage tanks, staging sites, maintenance operations and more.
Consider for example the situation in and near the towns of Wyalusing and Montrose. Both are small, historic towns, not quite fitting the description of ‘sleepy’ but, then again, not home to intense activity either. The library in Montrose is packed daily with gas company researchers poring over land deeds. The small hotel in Wyalusing is mostly filled with gas workers or deal makers. The coffee shop conversation on this short, storybook Main Street is filled with complaints about endless midnight truck traffic and news of residents trying to sell or move.
The road between these towns is a bucolic, windy, two-lane farm road. About midway is a staging area for trucks each carrying 50,000 lbs of sand. I observed roughly 30 trucks waiting to deliver to a nearby drill site under construction. The truckers report that each load had been trucked 80 miles from Wellesville, N.Y. One driver noted, that this typical site — a drill pad with six well holes — takes 480 million pounds of sand! At 50,000 pounds per truck driven 80 miles one-way — you do the math. Then calculate diesel fuel burned, exhaust released, road wear caused for that 80 mile trip for one pad of six wells. How could this be defined as clean energy? That doesn’t even begin to touch the controversy of the impact on global warming of the leaked methane during the drilling process.
[The Vargson family also has an interesting experience regarding “the process.]
While “The Truth….” version is certainly the one most residents would vote for, the unfortunate fact-based reality is that the rural inhabitants where most of these pads are found must deal with the realities described above. Good thing it’s them and not us, Right?
I wonder why none of those pesky little facts found their way into “The Truth…?”
And we’re just starting….